Some Fresh Air in Parliament
The occasion for this was provided by the amendments of the Criminal Code put up for consideration of the House over the past couple of weeks.
First, the courage posted by the government proposing an amendment to a part of the legislation that has remained dormant for nearly two centuries must be recognized. It concerns a sensitive issue relating to making provisions in the law to the effect that in a few specified exceptional cases, citizens will have the option to go for voluntary interruption of pregnancy, notably in cases of rape and incest resulting in unwanted pregnancy, where the child bearer is a minor and victim of similar circumstances and where abortion has to be resorted to in order to save the life of the child bearer. This freedom is to be exercised under strict control of supervising independent specialists.
The law as it stood before prohibited any such recourse in the specified circumstances. In other words, the victim of a rape, for example, would be acting in violation of the law if she disposed by means of abortion the unwanted child to be born out of traumatic circumstances. One might wonder why it took so long for a government to move in this direction, the more so as thousands of abortions, involving especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder, are believed to be taking place each year in those circumstances at high costs, in the dark and illegally.
One reason is religious susceptibility. Certain religious beliefs decree that the individual is not entitled to dispose of life which is defined as such as soon as a foetus is formed in the womb. The fact that Mauritius is quite steeped in religion makes it difficult to confront the concerned religious establishments by invoking the opportunity to lawfully do away with fruits of corruption in the womb. There could be a lot at stake if opinion is made to swing against those who enact legislation enabling corrective action in such cases which is viewed as anathema under some religious beliefs. That the government decided to go forward irrespective of this risk is an indicator of the risk that policy makers should take in this country if we have to make desired breakthroughs and social progress.
Given the controversy surrounding the subject, political parties gave carte blanche to their members to vote on the amendment of their own free volition. While such a device saves the parties from the ire that the concerned religious establishments could have hurled against them, it is highly commendable that the freedom given by parties made members of the Assembly speak out their mind in and outside Parliament and that too contrary, in certain cases, to their own respective religious precepts. Members were able to transcend those barriers when it came to defending the values and position that a secular state should take when it comes to the crunch. While party discipline works towards a more orderly delivery of the mandates of distinct parties, this episode showed that conferring certain degrees of freedom on members can release unsuspected resourcefulness in some of our members of the assembly who choose not to sit on the fence at the crucial time.
The decision to carry the amendments with 50 in favour and 14 against, cutting across party lines, had something refreshing about it. It showed that members can dare defeat taboos and assert to its plenitude the secular character of our Republic. History has shown that countries have made progress by overcoming relics of the past and coming face to face with ground realities by taking brave decisions, but without throwing away the essence of sound governance. We can only hope to go further in this direction so that we don’t become a prisoner of a past which sticks to its guns but fails to unlock a brighter future for all citizens sharing a collective kaleidoscope.